Blockbuster movies have been around since the late 1930s (e.g., The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, The Adventures of Robin Hood), but they weren’t called that. Hits were released at different times of year, but rarely during the summer. Indeed, summer was generally regarded as a poor time for movie releases: the general belief was that people would be going to be the beaches and traveling, having no time for movies.
The drive-in circuit knew better, and was inching toward movie watching as a summer event for over a decade. The Ten Commandments (1956) was still occasionally showing on drive-in screens well into the 70s. The Planet of the Apes film series, in its entirety, made for a well-attended all-nighter; and, of course, one could always count on the Harryhausen “Sinbad” movies for a night of monsters and cleavage on the high seas. Despite the success of these warm-weather alfresco films, the idea didn’t catch on with Hollywood (the popularity of the provincial drive-ins was probably too little publicized).
It wasn’t until 1975 that Steven Spielberg gave birth to the concept of the summer blockbuster with the release of Jaws on June 25. The date was no accident, but deliberately planned. Spielberg and Universal did something previously unheard of; investing a then-unheard-of two million dollars into a publicity campaign that pulled the masses off the beaches by making them fear the beaches. The result was epic box office (and a mass hysteria that resulted in people slaughtering dolphins, etc.) My father took us to see Jaws on the day it was released, and we were admitted late as theater employees were still furiously cleaning up from where traumatized patrons had literally vomited during the previous showing.
Of course, there was no turning back after the summer of 1975 box office recipts, but how the hell do you top a great white shark? 1976’s The Omen thought it had the answer in the Antichrist, who was not some fearsome, screaming red-faced demagogue, but a child. In 1977, George Lucas then topped his peer Spielberg with Star Wars, of course; naturally Spielberg would respond with Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Jurassic Park, and Saving Private Ryan. The annual summer blockbuster has continued to this day with others, notably through Marvel Comics getting in on the act.
The concept now seems so simple, so winning a financial formula that one wonders why it took until 1975 to figure it out. The pandemic has temporarily changed the playing field, so we are going to give 366 readers a chance to vote on four summer blockbusters of the past, which I will then review through the summer. The criteria chosen was the biggest blockbuster of each year, up to 1999. 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns were skipped, as they have been covered here. You may choose up to four from the list below. Poll closes at midnight eastern time on Sunday, May 2.